Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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As the waiter was coming to take my order, the counter boy called out to him, “Your daughter’s on the phone.”
“Which daughter?” asked the waiter.
“I don’t know,” said the counter boy. “One of your daughters.”
The waiter took out his note pad and said, “What would you like?”
I smiled. “You shouldn’t keep her waiting.” I wanted him to be nice to his daughter.
It might have been his favorite daughter calling, his most loyal, kindest, and sweetest girl. And if it wasn’t, if it was the other one? She probably needed him even more. I wanted her to get along with her father, even if she wasn’t the favored one. Fathers may say they don’t have favorites but everyone knows they do. I felt that this waiter’s daughter deserved more consideration. I simply didn’t want to be the cause of her feeling neglected. Besides, I wasn’t that hungry, and I had my newspaper to read.
The waiter smiled and shifted his weight. He readied his stubby pencil and raised his dusky eyebrows, a man without a qualm, completely assured. I envied him. He might have been mad at his daughter, and using me as an excuse to send her a message. But if he was, there was nothing I could do about it. I had to give my order.
In every diner, there are those who insist the waiter explain the precise inner workings of a tuna-fish sandwich before they place their orders. I’m not one of them. I said, “Open-faced turkey with mashed potatoes and green beans.”
“Anything to drink?”
He nodded, walked to the table behind me, and said, “What would you like today?” I thought for sure he’d head for the phone. The waiter looked about thirty-five; his daughter probably wasn’t more than twelve. All at once I couldn’t imagine him being angry at her. I felt bad for her having to wait on the other end of the phone.
My own father starts most of his sentences with “I want you to know” and then proceeds to tell you things you don’t want to know, unless you’re fascinated by collections of hand-carved wooden ducks. He keeps the big ducks all together in a specially lighted mahogany cabinet, with the biggest duck on the left. The baby ducks are displayed down the hall in a rickety pine bookshelf next to six racks of walking sticks. Some of those sticks have daggers inside, and one has poison darts. He’s got 147 sticks and no one has ever seen him take one for a walk.
The waiter wandered back behind the counter, past dull metal shelves filled with immense, bulging pies and placid trays of cinnamon-covered rice pudding, down to the phone in the rear, too far away for me to hear.
Maybe this guy was smarter than I thought. He’d handed in our orders and now had time to chat with his daughter without looking over his shoulder to check on his customers. Maybe this guy was actually the most considerate dad in town.
I liked that idea. I felt pleased that the man was talking to his daughter, so I opened my paper. But before I had finished with the front page, my turkey arrived with its little paper cup of cranberry sauce.
“No green beans today,” said the waiter.
“Okay. What else you got?”
As he recited the list, I realized I had been expecting green with the tan turkey and white potatoes. Tan, white, and green.
I said, “Since the only green vegetable is peas, I’ll have the peas.” I smiled. He promptly returned with a little white plastic bowl, but they were canned peas, not frozen. They had a chalky texture, and looked a sickly gray-green. They were tasteless. If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have asked for peas because I know that most diners serve canned.
Mom always made it my job to shell peas whenever we had them for dinner. Some pods contained shriveled, raisinlike things, but most held tight rows of firm, bright, perfect peas, their color a true green.
By the time Dad came home, we had usually finished our dinner. Mom always made us come back into the kitchen to have her blueberry pie or hot noodle pudding with warm cherry sauce. She wouldn’t let us touch dessert until my father came home. He’d take one bite and pass his plate to my big brother, who ate the whole thing in five seconds and shouted, “More!” which always got big laughs. I could stand on one eyebrow and clap my feet together in time to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and no one in my family would think I was funny.
This man and his daughter had distracted me, and I had ordered the wrong peas. I tried to bury them in the mashed potatoes, but they only made the mashed potatoes worse.
I know how to order in a diner. I stay away from stews on Sunday because that’s where the leftovers end up. I refuse to consider chicken cordon bleu (a ham and cheese sandwich in the middle of a chicken pretending to be French). I never order cream of corn soup, anything listed as “New York Style,” or filet mignon for under six dollars. Most people think these things are on menus because customers want them. But I figure the only reason people choose them is because they find them on a menu.
Usually I love diners — the overheard conversations, the efficiency of the waiters — but today I was unnerved. It upset me to make such a rudimentary error in ordering, and I left half my lunch on the plate.
I headed across the street to buy a pack of cigarettes at a card shop. They didn’t have my brand. Nowadays they have cards for nearly every circumstance: Get Well, Cousin; Second Marriage — Religious; New Job — Humorous; To My Ex-Stepmother on Halloween.
I found myself standing in front of Father’s Day — Belated.
Every year a company in Ohio sends me a box of chocolate-covered almonds with a calligraphic “Happy Birthday, Kenneth” on the lid. There is also a calligraphic “From” and then my father’s name. Last year they goofed and wrote “Happy Anniversary, Kenneth.” When I called to thank him and mentioned the mistake, he said, “What’s the difference? You got the chocolates, didn’t you?”
As far as birthday cards go, his secretary picks them out and signs them. No secretary ever stays long; every year the handwriting is different.
I chose the first card that didn’t make me cringe.
He was never the greatest dad in the whole world, even when I was young and sent him cards saying he was. But he really likes getting them, the more moronic the curlicued sentiments the better. I think he collects them.
With a dozen belated Father’s Day alternatives on display, I wasn’t the only one who’d rather forget a certain day in June. Even my brother forgot it the last three years. My mother thinks it’s because his wife didn’t remind him. But my father keeps track. Oh, yes. He doesn’t remember how old I am, what string instrument I played for seven years, or what I currently do for a living, but he’s like an elephant when it comes to missing his birthday or Father’s Day.
Standing in front of rows of colorful, oddly labeled cards for every occasion, I suddenly remembered why I love diners so much. The waiters care if you get what you want. I should have sent back the peas and gotten something else. In a diner you can do that.